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How to be an Astronaut

The guts and glory of China's space travel heroes


On the voyage of human curiosity, astronauts stand at the forefront of human endeavor. They witness the wonder and grandeur of our universe with an unparalleled view. Amazing though it all is, their lofty position is high risk and fraught with potential danger; being an astronaut is no easy ride. The World of Chinese sat down with Wang Yanlei, an astronaut trainer at the National Astronaut Center.

Thirty-year-old Wang is in charge of training the nation’s elite flyers to dock on space stations. He speaks with a composed, meditative voice, betraying his youthful age. If you want a shot at having the best view of the solar system, the selection process can seem both disparaging and intimidating. Besides a good deal of genetic luck, you’ll need the ability to forge yourself into a semi-superman via the most brutal training on earth. Most of us, mere mortals, are out of the running straight away; in China, if you haven’t flewn a fighter plane for a minimum of 600 hours, you can forget about becoming an astronaut.

As long as we are talking about reality and not sci-fi, there are three types of astronauts on board a spaceship: a commander, who helms the craft; an engineer, who maintains the spaceship; and a payload specialist, who conducts experiments in the space lab. So far, all the astronauts in China are commanders; they mainly operate the space shuttles, but they are also able to carry out elementary experiments. Their main job is to bring the results back home, meaning that what the top-brass are really looking for are super-pilots. Consequently, the military’s air force is the obvious recruiting field.

The physical requirements needed during an astronaut’s screening are intensely rigorous, and failure to meet any requirement results in an immediate disqualification. As a preliminary condition, prospects must be 25-35 years old, as, after years of rigorous training, commanders need to be at their absolute prime to fly. Height is required at 160-172 centimeters, with all candidates needing to weigh in at between 55-70 kilograms. A larger build makes it difficult to maneuver in the cramped conditions, and more weight means more fuel. Aside from being as fit as a particularly fastidious fiddle, a family history of disease is a major concern; candidates with three generations of certain major diseases in the family are disqualified. Large scars are also a big no-no, as they can bleed under the force of hyper gravitation. It’s bad news for those that like to party too; consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and even a picky taste in food can all be fatal flaws. Potential astronauts can even be barred for snoring—sound sleep is profoundly important to the busy astronaut. Finally, all candidates need to be able to speak articulate Mandarin without obvious traces of a dialect.


Astronauts in Shenzhou IX are being trained in the cramped re-entry capsule

A further important criterion for Chinese astronauts is the functioning of the vestibular system. A well-developed vestibular system makes one less sensitive to the discomforts caused by the alternating states of hyper gravitation and weightlessness. Tests for this include being hurled at high speeds on the end of a centrifuge’s eight-meter arm.

Candidates are required to have excellent cardiovascular functions to survive in space, which is also vital in dealing with hyper gravitation and weightlessness.

Because a spaceship’s interior creates a similar—but different—air pressure to that on earth, during space travel astronauts are liable to have symptoms similar to altitude sickness and oxygen starvation. Thousands of miles above the earth this could be a major problem, and relevant clinical tests are carried out accordingly.

Much like buying health insurance, the terms and conditions seem to go on ad infinitum, and the list of disqualifications is extremely lengthy to say the least. The ideal candidate is basically a super-human, a superb specimen that can be shot out of the atmosphere at the speed of sound, and sit weightless in space for days, and still be in good enough physical shape.

Beyond the physical strains and requirements, psychological tests are also important. Space travel is a lonely, unpredictable journey that can strain even the most serene person’s nerves to the absolute breaking point. Currently, a Chinese space mission lasts from a few to 15 days, but in the future they will be much longer. The shuttle is a small, claustrophobic hell in the near vacuum of space, utterly disconnected from planet earth, with astronauts divorced from everyone they have ever known. Couple this with the fact that any small malfunction or miscalculation could lead to a very sudden and certain death, and it’s a waking nightmare. Ground control is, of course, an important factor, but the stress of survival lies with the astronauts alone.

“Unless your nerves are extraordinarily tough, it would be impossible to complete your mission,” says Zhou Qianxiang, professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.


The safety of EVA (extra-vehicular activity) suits are tested in a hypobaric chamber at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center

Apart from coping with claustrophobia, isolation, and life-threatening emergencies, candidates also need to be prepared for the spotlight. An astronaut, who makes it to space, quickly becomes a public figure, even a national hero. After China’s latest space mission, the Shenzhou X (神州十号 Shénzhōu shí hào) in June 2013, the three astronauts involved were received by Xi Jinping and other senior government officials. Bland details of their life, such as whether they ate zongzi (粽子) or how they shaved, made national headlines. Rather than take a well-deserved rest, the first thing they had to do was smile for the Xinhua cameras and wave for the TV in their wheelchairs. “For Chinese astronauts, much of the pressure comes from being followed intimately, both by their superiors and the entire nation,” says Wang.

To test their mental mettle, candidates take a psychological test, used internationally to evaluate mental vigor and personality. Potential astronauts have their family and friends raked over and interviewed. Of course, any serious dirt on a candidate instantly disqualifies them.

When a pilot becomes a candidate, it takes years of training for them to “graduate”. They will receive physical, psychological, and survival training, not to mention the more obvious courses in astronautics. In the live video of the spaceship launch, the astronauts look peaceful, in the weightlessness of the space station they look healthy, and when they come back to earth, they get out of the capsule, hopefully, smiling. All of this is the result of their intense training.

When being shot into the sky, the spaceship accelerates to a speed of 7.9 kilometers per second in around five minutes, which puts the astronauts in a state of hyper gravitation. This means that, even though when lying down, much of the blood in their body rushes into the legs. The g-force causes the body to weigh eight times more than it would on earth; the lack of blood to the brain causes many to black out entirely. Blood pressure is likely to spike, and the heart beats at many times above its resting rate. As the shuttle launches, the vibrations are so fierce that all the organs in the body violently shake.

To counteract the mechanics of hyper gravitation, leg strength is specially trained so as to at least partially prevent the downward rush of blood. Centrifuge training is essential in causing resilience to some of the more adverse affects of being shot from the planet and into orbit. Accordingly, time in the centrifuge is considered the most painful part of all the training.

“Imagine being crushed under several times your own weight,” Yang Liwei (杨利伟) said in an interview with CCTV; he was the first Chinese astronaut on a manned spaceship. “My face became distorted, tears ran against my will, and the hardest part is that you cannot breath.” Even for such fine specimens, the training is immensely trying. Liu Yang (刘洋), China’s first woman astronaut described her feelings in the centrifuge to Beijing Daily: “Even my hair and my nails felt exhausted. The centrifuge training lasts just a few minutes at a time, but it feels like a 10 kilometer run.”

After being crushed under the weight of their gravity, astronauts are quickly introduced to the weightlessness of freefall, which, although it looks fun on TV, can cause adaptation syndrome, with symptoms such as nausea, vertigo, vomiting, and cardiovascular problems. Yang Liwei described how this happens, in an interview with CCTV: “In my first space voyage, I felt like I was flying backwards with my head down, it was awful. Later, I spoke with astronauts of a later mission, and they had the same feeling…when the feeling lasts it leads to space adaptation syndrome.” According to a study from Shen Xianyun, an expert at the Institute of Space Medico-Engineering, 50 percent of astronauts suffer from this problem.

To date, there is no way to prevent these symptoms. But, in a very Chinese show of hope, China’s astronauts take a ginseng based medicine to stave off the effects of adaptation sickness. However, the best thing they can do to keep symptoms at bay is training of the vestibular system. One way to do this is to sit through a 15 minutes session on a rotating chair; it sounds silly but most people can only stand one minute. Astronauts need to be able to take and perform orders while the chair rotates in full circles at a high speed.

Another way to build up the vestibular system is weightless training in a freefalling plane. During each session, the plane goes into a freefalling parabola, creating a weightless situation for about 28 seconds. For every training session, the astronaut will go through 10-15 freefalling parabolas. Even astronauts with a well trained vestibular system will start to vomit around the sixth or seventh parabola.

Astronauts are also trained in a hyperbaric chamber and receive five-day training in an upside-down position, during which time they still need to eat, drink, and take photographs as usual. This is all key to making sure they can function in space.


Astronauts train in a water tank, which creates a semi-weightless environment at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center

In order to prepare the astronauts for the space walk, water tanks are used to imitate a weightless environment. In a water tank, the astronaut wears a special training suit that weighs 120 kilograms; the gravity is nullified by buoyancy. The astronaut can stay afloat, and this creates an environment similar to life outside the shuttle.

When the ship returns back through the earth’s atmosphere, the surface of the ship can reach thousands of degrees Celsius, and the inside of the ship, despite precautions, can still heat up considerably. When the capsule touches down, the astronauts are reintroduced to earth’s gravity with a bang. In just a few days, they go from severe g-force and weightlessness, back to earth’s terrestrial gravity.

And, while that’s the end of the trip, it’s not the end of the journey. In case astronauts are thrown off course and are not found for days, outdoor survival skills are also key. The spaceship carries supplies for the astronauts to last two or three days. The destination is invariably the prairie of Inner Mongolia, but the astronauts have to know how to survive a fall into the ocean, ice-capped mountains, deserts, or even jungle. They are trained to be experienced outdoor adventurers, knowing how to hunt and fish, recognize edible plants, build temporary residences, and defend themselves against pests and beasts alike. Astronauts are hard as nails.

The survival training is always carried out in extreme circumstances. For example, astronaut Li Qinglong was put on an icy plain in Russia, and his assignment was to survive for 48 hours in the -50 Celsius weather. His only food was two small cubes of biscuits. “We didn’t sleep for two whole days. To be honest, I felt as though I was better off dead,” Li said in his interview with Liberation Army Daily. He lost five pounds in two days.

For children, obviously, learning science and keeping fit is key, but Wang has some different advice: “I think the most important thing is a strong personality,” he says. “You can always learn the knowledge you need, and if you work hard enough, you will. Personality, however, is another thing. When you are in space you have to deal with a lot of unpredictable things, and you only have yourself to count on. You need to be mentally resilient, calm, concentrated, and capable of working with others.”

Of course, we all look forward to the day when we can leisurely fling our chubby bodies into space for a quick lunch and maybe a cocktail or two. But, for now, space only has room for the special few who want it bad enough.


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